September 14, 2009

Translation Matters

It's always fascinating to me when theological questions usually reserved for the seminary classroom find their way into popular discourse. One current example is the matter of Bible translation theory, which has recently received a significant amount of attention with the announcement that the current edition of the New International Version (NIV) is undergoing a significant revision. Indeed, a website has been created to explain the translation committee's decision to revise the translation - NIV Bible 2011. This decision has raised questions in popular circles that are usually reserved for graduate theological education. Such questions are: What makes for a good translation? What makes one translation superior to another? What makes each translation different? And why do we have so many translations anyway?

A translation's quality can be considered in whether it is faithful to the meaning of the original text. The problem here is how we determine faithfulness. Is faithfulness to the original best achieved by strict adherence to the original form in an attempt to reproduce the syntactical elements as closely as possible. Or is faithfulness best achieved by rendering the original into the best colloquial language? Different translators would give different answers.

So, what is the average churchgoer to do when considering which translation to buy? Some use the translation that their parents used. Others choose to use the translation that their preacher uses because it's easier to follow on Sundays. I would say that you are safe with any translation that has the word "standard" in the title. Beyond that, the NIV is a very popular (best-selling) choice as well. For serious Bible study, it is wise to consult several translations including representatives from different translation philosophies. For example, one might study a passage in the NASB, NIV, and NLT. This selection would provide a "standard" translation that attempts to capture the grammatical form of the original (NASB). It would also provide a very dynamic translation which moves entirely away from the grammatical form to idiomatic expressions (NLT). Some balance is achieved in this selection by the NIV which comes down somewhere in between formal and dynamic equivalence. A word of caution is order though. One should never, never, never use only a paraphrase (e.g., The Message, The Living Bible) for serious Bible study. These are not translations and they are not done by a committee of scholars. They are usually one person's take on how biblical passages could be interpreted or applied to the present day. They are helpful more along the lines of a commentary. They should not be used solo for serious study. No matter what!

I preach from the New Revised Standard Version, not because it's the best translation but because I developed a strong familiarity with it in seminary where it was required in a number of classes. I used to use the NIV and appreciated a fresh and unfamiliar rendering of many texts when reading them in the NRSV. The switch caused me to go back and think about some things a bit more closely. I'm not committed to the NRSV for life by any means. In fact, as I've been preaching through Philippians lately, I've noticed a number of places where it seems to take some liberty with the original Greek text. Also, the language is becoming a bit dated for contemporary readers. It may not be a bad idea to switch from time to time just to keep things fresh. I'm interested in looking more closely at the English Standard Version, which has developed quite a good reputation as of late and uses a translation philosophy similar to the NRSV.

All that to say, there are some good translations out there. Never before have so many translation options been available to the masses. This is really quite a historical achievement when we consider that as recently as 600 years ago people did not have personal copies of the Bible. When taken together, several translations can cast a great deal of light on some difficult passages. Familiarity with different translations keeps us thinking afresh about the Bible, which is a good thing. Thanks to the NIV translation committee for their interest in keeping their translation up-to-date and for bringing these important translation matters into popular purview.

10 comments:

Anna Lindsey Sailer O'Reilly said...

This is very insightful and helpful. I use many translations when reading or studying the Bible for the various reasons you stated. I'm excited to hear about the new NIV as I did not know that they were writing a new one.

Andrew said...

Matt, well written view as always. I agree with your point that using multiple versions often highlights senses of the underlying text.

I'm somewhat less sympathetic about your generous treatment of paraphrase Bibles, nonetheless admit that different believers have different needs in terms of their own maturity.

My interest in this issue is not so much driven by quality of translation, for as you point out, the studious Bible student can get around issues like that. Rather, I am more interested in the establishment of orthodoxy through translation for this problem with translation is much harder to get around. If your translation team consists of open-minded, but still nonetheless theologically homogeneous scholars, theology is going to be embedded in the translation.

Although there are many such examples, I provided one in a previous comment to one of your posts. I questioned the orthodox approach to translating Ἔθνος ( ethnos – G1484) by pointing out that only Biblical scholars dealing with NT Greek text render that to mean non-Israelite, rather than 'nations' or 'national customs' as the word is found in all other ancient Greek non-Biblical text.

Clearly, the majority of NT Greek scholars share this common theological orthodoxy?

My question to you (which still stands) is shouldn't all assumptions (even apparent orthodox ones) be constantly be subjected (or re-subjected) to scrutiny for the sake of clear Biblical meaning?

If my assertion above is true that words can and have been imparted meaning (and thus theology) where no meaning (and theology) was intended, wouldn't that provide sufficient incentive for going beyond mere semantic analysis?

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for your generous comments. I agree that theology should be continually subjected to exegesis. Though I still disagree with your understanding of ethnos as it is generally used in the NT on the basis of immediate contextual evidence over against more distant extra-biblical evidence of classical usage. It is simply a poor hermeneutic to make final determinations about the meaning of a word by giving more weight to usages outside of the document in question. The author may intend to use the word differently than it has been used before and the evidence in the author's original work must carry the greatest weight. Of course, biblical texts ought to be read in light of extra-biblical usage but extra-biblical usage should not be read into biblical texts. To transfer all meanings of a word into every single use of the word is to committ the falacy of illegitimate totality transfer.

Grace and peace,
Matt

Andrew said...

Matt, you are welcome for the comments, though they're not very charitable because your blog warrants them. You're blog is always well considered, well written; easy and enjoyable to read. Therefore there isn't that much room for charity, even if the comments were intended as a compliment.

Back to your point though, although you agree all theology should be subjected to exegesis, you disagree with the example that was offered (ethnos) because in this case, the meaning of the word greatly alters theological intent from theological meaning.

Only Biblical translators impart the meaning “non-Israelite” to ethnos and its derivatives, and translate it into English as “gentile”, though you argue that such an observation is poor hermeneutics because it references extra-biblical evidence which strongly influences its final determination.

The problem with your counter-argument is that those who wrote the New Testament thought using Hebrew idioms, but wrote in Greek (essential a foreign language). To to understand the Hebrew idioms behind the text, one must look at contemporary non-Biblical Greek usage to establish a baseline. Even so, you demand a strictly Biblical argument, here is one:

The translation problems associated with the usage of the word “ethnos” in the New Testament is an example of a larger subset of problems translating Hebrew idioms into Greek. Accordingly they get mistranslated into English from the Greek. To understand the proper translation, it makes more sense to preserve an underlying Hebrew theology than to impart a new one onto the text. Where Hebrew idioms appear in Greek, preference should be given to theologies consistent with the OT and with known Hebrew idioms.

Here's a concrete example that is Biblically coherent (no non-Biblical documents):

God's promise to Abraham [Gen 17:6] is reiterated when Israel blesses Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh specifically saying that Ephraim would become a “multitude of nations” מְלֹֽא־הַגֹּויִֽם mĕlo gowy from [Gen 48:19]( see also [Gen 48:3-4] and [Gen 35:11]). Clearly this idea of “multitude of nations” מְלֹֽא־הַגֹּויִֽם is a Hebrew idiom that appears frequently in the OT especially when the House of Israel was known as Ephraim.

Now look closely at [Romans 11:25] where ethnos has been translated “gentiles”. Paul is talking about Israel and their blindness (as well prophesied in Isaiah) and he uses the Greek expression “πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν”.

If the Greek word ἐθνῶν” means nations rather than 'gentile', the expression “πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν” is the well known Hebrew idiom “multitude of nations” ( mĕlo gowy) from [Gen 48:19] expressed in Greek, giving Paul's argument wonderful coherence, but also a strong connection to OT prophecy [Eze 37].

However if ἐθνῶν” is translated to mean non-Israelite (gentile), Paul's argument is not only confusing, his point is disconnected from much OT (especially Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah 31), and the well known Hebrew idiom lost in the translation from the Greek to English. Furthermore, the translation of 'multitude' to 'fullness' is stretched.

This class of problems is much deeper than simply deriving word meaning, but destroys the theological coherence between the testaments, that we know from the book of Hebrews, should exist. Worse, it introduces theology meaning that was not intended.

Compare the expression in [Gen 48:19] and [Romans 11:25] energetically and see what you think.

Andrew said...

Last line should have read:

Compare the expression in [Gen 48:19] and [Romans 11:25] exegetically ...

( .. not energetically)

In Kandahar, neither networks, nor spell-checkers work well)

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for your comments. Sorry I'm taking so long to reply...busy times.

I didn't argue that your hermeneutics were poor because you reference extra-biblical material but because you seem (in my reading of your argument) to give more weight to the extra-biblical material than the biblical material itself. Of course, we must consider the meaning of the words as they were used in the Greco-Roman world. However, we must also realize that the biblical authors may be using a word differently from its regular usage. It may be the case that ethnos is one such case. I think there is textual evidence for taking ethnos to mean non-Jew(e.g. when it is contrasted with Jews as in Romans 1:16. Also, I have no problem translating ethnos as "nations" in Rom 11:25, and I think the argument you've made from the OT connection is solid. I simply want to make the point that the word doesn't necessarily mean the same thing all the time. The immediate context must be the final determining factor.

Grace and peace,
Matt

Andrew said...

Matt,

No worries about taking long to reply – you are busy. Your replies, however long they take, are appreciated. Responding:

None of the KJV, UKJV, ESV or NET have 'gentile' in [Romans 1:16] (from ἐθνῶν”), rather they all seem to translate 'Greek' from Ἕλλην (G1672). The chain reference in the ESV ties these 'Greek', to those mentioned in [John 7:35] and [John 10:16].
Were you looking for an example where you believe ἐθνῶν” should be translated specifically 'non-Israelite' based upon context? If so, its not clear from this example, because apples are being compared to oranges.
Even so, it's not clear how immediate contexts can't be as misconstrued by theological assumptions as word translations are.
For example, going back to your acceptance of ἐθνῶν” as meaning 'nations' in [Rom 11:25], do you take the nations spoken of, as being Israelite or non-Israelite nations? Ultimately, it matters because [Gen 48:19] dictates how we should understand [Rom 11:25].
In the 60 million Greek words found in the Oxyrhynchus papyri and the Tebtunis papyri (representing Greek literature from Homer through to 1453 AD) has ἐθνῶν” ever been translated as anything but 'nations' (except for the 60 or so Biblical examples).

Could you answer two questions:
1. Is there even a single example where translating ἐθνῶν” as nation or nations make absolutely zero sense according to the context?
2. Have you ever considered the House of Israel (Ephraim) in opposition to the House of Judah such as is the case in [2 Kings 16:6] (who are the Jews at war with in [2 Kings 16:6]?)

[Related to this, is there even a single spot in the Bible where the House of Judah is synonymous with the House of Israel after [2 Kings 16:6] such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel through to Revelation? Why would the Bible distinguish between Judah and Israel (Ephraim) if it was not important?]

If the answer to the first question is 'no' than there has to be compelling reasons to translate words in a way that strays from obvious word meanings and common usage.
If the answer to the second question is also 'no', than one has simply not considered all of the possibilities and is committing an error of equivocation, and thus injecting theology where theology was not intended. Theology can be made to say anything when it is based on errors.

If the answer to either question is yes, this point will be conceded and you will be left in peace.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Andrew,

First, my apologies on the Rom 1:16 thing. I should know better that to post quickly without consulting the original. Thanks for catching my goof.

Second, after looking quickly at several occurences of ethnos in Romans, I really like the translation of nations. It feels fresh.

Third, I do think translating ethnos as "the nations" in Rom 11:13 is quite awkward and probably not the way to go. So, I'll throw this text out as a possible answer to your first question. I don't really have time to do a detailed study of ethnos in the NT right now...sorry. With regard to your second question, I have not considered the contrast you suggest.

You have certainly done a lot of work on this topic and are clearly more familiar with the data and literature than I. Is this your dissertation or something?

Matt

Andrew said...

Matt,

As Christ reigns, some have been blessed with resources enough to pursue formal education, while others have been blessed with other childlike blessings.

Both Peter and Paul coveted the mind of Christ though one was educated, the other not. Both were lit by the same Holy Spirit and Christ used both for His glory. This is something to rejoice in, as Paul's ministry, though advanced, and Peter's ministry, though fundamental, helped to complete the delivery of the Gospel.

Consider a few fundamental observations readily obvious to children and fools:
*Of the Bible's 31124 or so verses, approximately 23210 of those verses are OT. Though 74.57% of the Bible is OT, there are Christians and Christian ministers alike who publicly argue the OT is obsolete, not necessary; despite [2 Timothy 3:16] (You are not one of them). Although the OT points to Christ, its purpose is greater.
*Of the Bible's 31124 or so verses, approximately 6641 OT verses and 1711 NT verses are predictive or prophetic. In total, 8352 of the Bibles verses are predicative or prophetic, which is just under 27% and yet Christians and Christian ministers alike often shrug off or write off prophecy as unknowable and uncertain; despite Revelation 6 (especially [Rev 6:1]) which shows by the breaking of seals, His revelation is progressive in nature and temporal. God does not hide his Revelation for all time as the seals attest.
*Men boast of themselves as “Calvinists” after John Calvin or “Arminians” after Jacobus Arminius despite [1 Cor 3:21]. Disunity within the body of Christ is caused by its members being at various stages of maturity in the fullness of Christ, yet we still see very Godly men (some theologians at equal stages of maturity in their fullness of Christ), yet are still at odds with one another theologically.

So where does this leave us? We have Christian's who ignore the OT, Christian's who ignore prophecy and its fulfillment and Christian's who have contradictory theology and we wonder why. We have eyes, but cannot see. We have ears but cannot hear.

Speaking generally (not specifically towards you) - it seems obvious from the perspective of a child, that none of us should deceive ourselves into thinking we are wise in this age - as so many do. The Bible says let the wisdom of the age and every age perish; if we must choose a denomination, let us choose that of the thief on the Cross. Christ was not a Calvinist, nor an Arminian, nor was the author of Hebrews which was the original point. Neither then, should we be, rather we should work backwards to fundamentally question if our understanding is correct, or the source of confusion and disagreement.

As an example, we have been looking at the use of the word 'gentile' to see if we even understand what its original meaning was, and it seems clear to be theologically loaded and specifically confined to Biblical translation, resulting in the removal of clarity and injection of ideas that break the uniformity of both testament. But it is still only one example. What about putting into practice the Christian idea of letting the Bible interpret the Bible? If this is so, should we not let the entire Bible interpret the entire Bible? But we don't.

If we don't even recognize Christ's reference to the tree in [Matt 24:32],[Mark 13:28] and [Luke 21:30] as having its basis from the same tree spoken of in [Isa 5][Jer 2:21][Jer 11:16,19][Hos 9:10][Eze 17:22-24][Eze 31] or even [Matt 21:21], how are we possibly going recognize the season Christ references. We are no better than the hypocrites in [Luke 12:56] because we construct one theology for the OT and quite another for the NT, rather than seeing one eternal purpose one incomplete covenant and the same covenant completed. So much for using the Bible to interpret the Bible!

Andrew said...

We see the marriage between Lord as Husband [Isa 54:5] and his Bride [Jer 3:20] in [Isa 61:10][Jer 2:32][Jer 7:34][Jer 16:9][Eze 16:32] and yet when the same Bridegroom appears and takes a Bride in the NT we say he has taken a new bride. This makes God an adulterer for whoever puts aside his wife and marries another is an adultery [Luke 16:18].

[Isa 54:5][Jer 3:20][Joel 1:8] outline clearly who the Bride is, and though a child can see this, the wise of this age cannot. It is true that we are His bride, but it is also true, have always been the self same bride, one and the same. The bride he set aside is the bride he took back just like Hosea, except when He took her back, she did not remember how it was at first [Isa 65:17][Isa 43:18,25][Eze 16:22] though He did [Jer 2:2].

Truly, God is able to do immeasurably more than anyone could ask or imagine [Eph 3:20]. Therefore it seems reasonable whether we are educated or not, to ask God to provide insight into why apparently mature believers in Christ still lack unity of faith; or why prophecy is still sealed against our understanding; or why the need for two covenants, and why differences between them. Even if it is a fool is doing asking , these are worthwhile questions, because they are the ones children ask.

As it turns out, God is faithful and never gives a stone to a child who asks, instead, for bread.